This past week two shows stood out on paper, despite both being examples of well-trodden TV genres. One showed, remarkably, that innovation isn’t always necessary when there’s a foundation of real quality, the other fell miserably flat.
Call the Midwife (Episode 1, available on BBC iPlayer until Sun 26 Feb 2012) (above)
When I previewed Call the Midwife, I noted that the most prominent danger for any period drama is an excess of sentimentality. Sadly this one walked straight into the trap, emerging steeped in syrupy smugness. Smugness, one might think, is the last thing you’d expect to get from a show about post-war midwives fighting to help the downtrodden of East London – surely it’s sad, surely the message of hope in the face of adversity is magical to behold? Wrong. It can be very subtle, just a whisper of back-slapping on the breeze, but there is a definite sense of self-satisfaction emanating from this tired portrayal of ‘common folk’. It could best be described as a sense of having done something noble and worthy just by showing their tribulations, like some sort of atonement for enjoying the fruits of modernity on the back of years of other people’s hardships. Whatever you want to call it, it pervades every facet of Call the Midwife, from the facial expressions of the dismayed posh girl to the premature baby saved by nothing more than happy thoughts and love. This goes hand-in-hand with a stark lack of believability (I’ll be careful not to say realism, not being an expert on post-war Londoners). Programme makers frequently struggle to depict the ‘common folk’ in a believable way, as ITV’s Downton Abbey showed.
Without getting into that very different period piece too much, the huge downside was the portrayal of the servants and house staff – a working class accent (cockney or default northern, or sometimes the rare Cornish) seems to be forever tied to an innate silliness and frivolity in characters in programmes such as these. The opening scene of Call the Midwife features an immediate immersion-breaker of this nature, with two women engaged in fisticuffs. I’m sure this sort of thing used to happen, perhaps Jennifer Worth (on whose memoirs the show is based) even witnessed this exact fight, but there was something jarringly unconvincing about the bloodthirsty onlookers screaming “come on, fight, fight” in exaggerated cockney accents. I am willing to admit that all of these complaints could be filed as pet hates. However, this would only be an issue if the meat of the plot stood up well, which it sadly does not. Some babies are born against the odds, a posh girl learns that some people are poor, and it is strongly suggested that wishing really hard is an adequate substitute for proper medical care. Just what you’d expect from programme makers who believe this sort of unimaginative sickliness is an adequate substitute for trying.
Earthflight (Episode 4, available on BBC iPlayer until Thu 9 Feb 2012)
Coming off the back of the phenomenal Frozen Planet is no enviable task. Especially not for a nature show with an undoubtedly smaller budget and no David Attenborough. In spite of this, however, Earthflight somehow manages to stand up in its own right. I say somehow, but the reason is clear: focus. Frozen Planet focused on seasons and environments, tackling a particular landscape at a particular time and exploring it broadly. This worked excellently with the stunning visuals and the epic drawl of Attenborough’s voiceover work. Earthflight, on the other hand, is very simply a show about birds. Granted each episode centres on a different continent, but the subject matter feels tighter and more concentrated. This is no bad thing, as it provides a sense of purpose that compensates for the (only slightly) less grandiose presentation and packaging. There are still stunning shots of mysterious and breathtaking environs, complete with cleverly worked music that adds to the emotions with commendable subtlety. And of course the level of factual detail the show goes into keeps it interesting beyond just sound and visuals. The only real snagging point is the voiceover work of David Tennant. I realise this may seem petty, but nature shows have the good fortune of their material being readily provided for them; issues of presentation are what they must ultimately be judged on.
Far from being actively bad, Tennant’s effort is just average. This may partly be due to the unshakable knowledge that, like Morgan Freeman voicing March of the Penguins, he is reading a script and relaying information from others. I am not suggesting that Attenborough wings it from his own knowledge, but knowing about his expertise somehow adds gravity to the things he says. This makes you forget that you’re watching a TV show and instead get drawn into his mind, as if in some sort of beamed-to-the-brain personal lecture. This is not a question of accents either; Neil Oliver of the much-underrated Coast proves that a Scottish accent can work wonders in such situations. The real issue with Tennant is that he is an actor. Instead of a genuine passion for nature, what comes across is a guy trying to create the illusion of one. In doing this, his delivery becomes very creamy and Jackanory-esque, more suited to an advert for a high-end supermarket than a factual programme. But don’t let this put you off – the issues are incredibly minor in the grand scheme of things. Earthflight is still stunning, with unique features like on-board bird cameras adding to the experience and making it well worth trying if you’ve ever enjoyed a nature series before.